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Hernández: USC's historic loss wasn't the miracle Donte Williams needed at the Coliseum

·5 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 25, 2021: USC Trojans head coach Donte Williams in the closing moments of the Trojans 45-27 loss to Oregon State at the Coliseum on September 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC interim head coach Donte Williams looks down in the closing moments of the Trojans' 45-27 loss to Oregon State at the Coliseum. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Well, we know who won’t be USC’s head coach next year.

Donte Williams’ minuscule chances of remaining in charge of the Trojans beyond this season were obliterated on Saturday night in a 45-27 defeat by Oregon State that was as historic as it was humiliating.

With USC presumably looking for a big-name coach, the assumption was that Williams had to perform a miracle to remove the interim label from his job description. Instead, he was responsible for a different kind of once-in-a-lifetime event, as the Trojans lost to the Beavers in Los Angeles for the first time since 1960.

That Williams is extremely likable or that his story is inspiring didn’t matter. That he preaches accountability didn’t matter.

Against the lowly regarded Beavers, Clay Helton’s spirit continued haunting the USC sideline and hovering over everything the Trojans did on the field. They couldn’t run the football, and they couldn’t stop Oregon State from running it. They couldn’t stop the pass, either. They couldn’t tackle.

The game was a continuous defensive breakdown for USC, with Oregon State receivers finding themselves wide open downfield and running backs galloping through holes that looked as broad as the 110 Freeway.

“I got out-coached today,” Williams said.

The Beavers finished with 535 yards of offense, including 322 on the ground. The game wasn’t as close as the score suggested, as the Trojans were down by as much as 42-17 early in the fourth quarter.

Helton might as well have coached.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis defended Williams by saying, "You're not going to change in one week."

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis gets sacked by Oregon State linebacker Riley Sharp
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis had 355 yards passing with one touchdown but also took two sacks and had three passes intercepted in a loss to Oregon State. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Fair or not, however, that’s basically what Williams had to do to beat out the other coaching candidates in what should be an exhaustive national search.

That doesn’t mean Williams has no future at USC. The school is expected to make every effort to retain its top recruiter.

That also doesn’t mean Williams won’t eventually develop into the caliber of coach who can lead a major program. The former defensive backs coach is only 39.

He just won’t be USC's next head coach.

Williams pushed back against the notion that he was taking on too much too soon.

"This is what I've been doing my whole life," Williams said. "So, no moment will ever be too big. This is what I've been doing. This is what I'll continue to do."

Except the X's and O's weren't the only problems.

He also fumbled Jaxson Dart's situation.

A true freshman, Dart was spectacular in his college debut a week earlier, leading the Trojans to a comeback victory at Washington State after Slovis was knocked out of the game. Dart was noticeably limping during and after the game, but Williams downplayed the injury and continued to do so in the days that followed.

But on Thursday, 247 Sports first reported and The Times' Ryan Kartje confirmed that Dart underwent an operation to repair a torn meniscus in his knee.

Williams was evasive on Saturday night when questioned about when he learned Dart required surgery.

"You know what?" Williams said. "I didn't really know. It was kind of something, he played the whole game. So with the injury he had, he played the whole game last week. So, we actually didn't think that it was nothing too bad, and then next thing you know, he needed a small procedure, and it will be week to week."

Injured USC Trojans quarterback Jaxson Dart walks off the field at the Coliseum
Injured USC quarterback Jaxson Dart walks off the Coliseum field after the Trojans' 45-27 loss to Oregon State. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Asked when Dart's knee was repaired, Williams replied, "I don't know off the top of my head right now."

If that's true, he was clueless about the program’s future cornerstone, a quarterback who played well enough to start a quarterback controversy.

What's more likely is that Williams denied knowing the details because he didn't want to admit he purposely misled the public about Dart's condition. But that's also problematic. By not ruling out Dart, Williams forced Slovis to listen to speculation and answer questions about how he could lose his job. In this case, the downside of the confusion over who would start clearly outweighed the benefits of keeping the Beavers guessing.

In light of Dart's operation, Williams was asked whether he questioned his decision to leave the 18-year-old in for the entire game. Dart was visibly hobbled after he was hit late in the first half.

"No," Williams replied. "It was already done and, like I said, it was minor. So it will still be week to week."

So, he didn't know when Dart had surgery, but he knew exactly when his meniscus was damaged and to what degree? Riiiiight.

For what it's worth, Williams pledged the team would improve.

"It will all get fixed," he said. "I promise you that."

At the same time, he sounded as if he didn't entirely grasp what was expected of him and his team.

"I don't know how many games there were today, but I'm assuming there were about 50," Williams said. "And 25 teams lost. We just happened to be one of them."

USC isn't any other team, however. A coach at Oregon State, or even UCLA, can say something like that. A coach at USC can't.

Under the current conditions, only a miracle worker could turn around Trojans. But that’s what the Trojans need, and that’s not Donte Williams.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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